Updated: May 12, 2020 9:16:22 am
Fifty days into lockdown, while most states demanded further easing to resume economic activities, they were undecided about completely lifting the lockdown on May 17. While some states sought the authority to decide zoning of districts into red, orange and green categories, some wanted more flexibility to modify lockdown guidelines within their jurisdiction.
In the fifth meeting called by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday, chief ministers of at least four states — Maharashtra, Punjab, Telangana and West Bengal — were of the view that the lockdown which came into effect on March 25, should be extended. States including Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Andhra, Bihar and Tamil Nadu had reservations on allowing inter-state transport, be it rail or air, and wanted to be consulted before a decision is taken. Bihar Chief Minister Nitisk Kumar, in fact, said starting rail services “was a mistake” and that his opinion should have been taken since he was a “former Railways Minister”.
The Centre had, on Sunday, announced partial resumption of rail services between New Delhi and several major cities.
At the end of the marathon six-hour meeting, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked chief ministers to share a broad strategy on how they would want to deal with the lockdown regime in their particular states by May 15. “I want states to make a blue print on how to deal with various nuances during and after the gradual easing of the lockdown,” he told them.
Sources present in the meeting said a consensus seemed to be building around a demand by Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh that the authority to zone districts into red, orange and green categories be delegated to states with even the BJP-ruled Haryana backing it.
In fact, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said categorisation of red zones should be done on the basis of containment zones, pointing out that the district-wise formula was impractical in a densely-populated city like Delhi.
That can be worked upon and the number of zones can be revised based on the ground situation. But the non-containment zones should be opened up, he said.
Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa wanted to do away with the district-wise red, orange and green zones, and instead have only strictly cordoned containment zones. In non-containment zones, he said, commercial activities including public transport should be allowed. Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan sought powers to decide on lockdown guidelines after assessing the prevailing situation in the state.
Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot told the Prime Minister that while states followed the Centre mandated lockdown “with all their willpower”, they should now get the right to decide the zones and restrictions in the next phase.
“Several CMs made the point that as people implementing the measures on the ground, states are more attuned to the actual situation and thus while it is alright for the Centre to share the broad criteria for classification of districts, the actual categorisation should be left to them. Many also said there were flaws in the Centre’s list,” said a source who was present in the meeting.
A fresh list of districts in the three zones was circulated only to be recalled by the Centre within a few minutes, said sources.
Sources said the Prime Minister asked states to make their own policy, decide on zonal restrictions, activities to be allowed in containment zones, and outside. He made it clear that there would be no full-fledged opening of the railways; it would be need-based and slow. “He also said till a vaccine was found, maintaining social distancing — of 2 metres — was the only weapon against Covid. He also said pre-Covid and post-Covid are two different worlds and India should look out for new economic opportunities, it should not lose out,” said an official.
In his opening remarks, Prime Minister Modi stressed on teamwork, compassion and statesmanship while dealing with the crisis. Pointing out that India’s approach has gained global recognition, he said the country has a “clear indication as to the geographical spread of the pandemic in India including the worst affected areas” and that officials have understood the operating procedures right up to the district levels.
Economic activities have already resumed slowly but in the coming days, the process will further gather steam, Modi said.
But many chief ministers differed in their views on the lockdown exit plans.
While Yeddyurappa said all domestic and international travel should not be permitted at least till the end of May, Vijayan was of the view that domestic flight services could be resumed with special guidelines, except from the containment zones. Medical tests could be conducted at the airports and those with symptoms should not be allowed to travel, he said.
Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, one of the first to seek an extension of the lockdown in the previous meetings, did not press for it on Monday, but stressed on the need for broad principles at the national level and decentralised implementation by local administration.
Punjab Chief Minister Singh said states should be allowed great flexibility in micro-planning, with MSMEs permitted to function even in red zone districts with proper safeguards. “The exit strategy should consider and focus on fiscal and economic empowerment of the states, which are responsible for the real action directly impinging upon the livelihood and social health of the common man,” said a statement quoting Singh as having told the Prime Minister.
Singh was joined by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel in demanding more financial resources from the Centre to fight the pandemic, particularly with the economy on the downhill. While Singh sought urgent funds to meet at least 33 per cent of the state’s committed liabilities and grants for three months to meet revenue shortfalls, Baghel lent voice to his demand to let states increase their borrowing limit under the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act 2005 (FRBM Act) from 3 per cent of GSDP (gross state domestic product) to 4 per cent. Kerala reiterated its demand for raising the fiscal deficit limit and sought more funds with lower rates of interest.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray said the pandemic cannot be contained unless the lockdown continued, but advocated a gradual lifting. “Thackeray said, ‘we are ready to live with corona, but we are not sure whether the virus is ready to live with us’,” said a source who was also part of the meeting.Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekhar Rao too said strict restrictions should continue.
Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy wanted revival of economic activities in many more sectors to restore normalcy, the sources said. Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu said “fight to contain coronavirus must not have a compromising effect on economy,” and said the Centre must continue efforts to get more investments to the northeastern region given its potential in horticulture and agriculture.
While there was no consensus on lifting the lockdown, a minister from a state who was present in the meeting said, “There does not seem to be any clarity on the issue of opening up; probably states are playing it safe right now. Most of the conversation so far has been on migrants and the special trains.”
Another senior minister from a state said the tone and tenor was akin to a “cat and mouse game” on the issue of lockdown extension and the way forward. “Most indicated they want some relaxations but are stopping short of either giving concrete suggestions or advocating a full lockdown,” the minister said. While Tripura indicated that the larger lockdown should continue, it called for further easing in districts. Assam too said it was imperative that people do not abandon social distancing, and advocated that some form of the lockdown should be continued.
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